26 September 2009

Proper 26 B - Stumbling into God's Kingdom

Mark 9: 38-50

St. Luke's, Burlington

27 September 2009

By Stuart Pike

Today’s readings, especially the Gospel, present a difficult text for the preacher. It is full of dramatic images. Jesus speaks about mill stones being hung around necks and people being thrown into the sea. He speaks about cutting off body parts or plucking out eyes. Jesus often used hyperbole to get people’s attention.

This is one of the Gospel stories which is happening while Jesus and his disciples are “on the way” which is a code meaning that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. John complains to Jesus that they have found someone who has been healing (or casting out demons) in Jesus’ name, but yet he wasn’t one of the twelve. So they tried to stop this unknown healer.

Perhaps we can imagine what may have caused John and the other disciples to try to stop the man. The twelve disciples have been with Jesus since the beginning of his public ministry. They have been through thick and thin with him. Though up until this time it has mostly been thick: they have been successful and the crowds are following them. The thin stuff will happen later in Jerusalem.

Jesus disciples are already feeling a bit defeated. Earlier in this chapter, a man comes to Jesus asking him to cast out a spirit of dumbness in his son saying, “I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”[Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, they ask Jesus why they failed. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "This kind can come out only through prayer." [Mk. 9:28-29]

And our Gospel lesson is a few verses further on. They know they have failed and yet, here is this interloper who isn’t part of the “in” group. And he is casting out demons! He doesn’t have the authority, he doesn’t have the history that they have. Just who does he think he is anyway?

I can only imagine Jesus facial expression at the time. Perhaps he crossed his eyes! In an often hostile environment, here is a man who is healing in Jesus’ name, and his own disciples are trying to stop him!

I imagine that Jesus today would use words like, “Oi vey! Come on guys, get with the program!!! This guy is helping out here!”

Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

In other words, Jesus is saying that even though this person is not part of their group, if he is still doing the good work of Christ, and in Christ’s name, then he belongs.

The disciples were trying to draw a circle to include themselves, and to exclude all the rest. “Only we belong.” Jesus redraws the circle wider to include all who are doing God’s will. “All are welcome.”

This is indeed Good News for us and for all people. This unknown man was not a member of the 12 disciples. It appears that he was not even a member of the 70 who Jesus had sent out to heal and teach. We don’t know his connection with Jesus. But we do know that he did what he did in Jesus’ name. We don’t know him, but he knew Jesus.

We know that this stranger was using his time and abilities to be a conduit of God’s grace. He was being salt, as Jesus tells his disciples to be. Salt makes a difference. It changes things. Being salt, means doing your part in a world which doesn’t necessarily follow Jesus’ way. It means being a healing presence in what might be a sea of sickness all around us. Being salt might mean going against the flow, especially in a society which views religions with suspicion. Sometimes being salt might even mean being a leader within your own religion which leads us to a new place. Being salt means being an agent of change.

The very basis of our call to be salt is in our baptism. We as baptised people are called to be builders of God’s kingdom in the here and now – our baptism is supposed to make a difference to us, and we are supposed to make a difference in our world. That is why, right in our baptismal covenant which we renew at every baptism we attend, we promise: 1) to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; 2) to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves; and 3) to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

The best way that we can do this is working together with other followers of Christ wherever they are, even if they don’t belong to our Church or our group.

If we think that we could never be so shallow as John was when he wanted to exclude the unknown healer, then we need to think again. The fact that we can be so shallow shows itself again and again throughout the Church’s history. Perhaps one of the biggest examples of this is denominationalism. It seems that most Christians, even those who get along with other denominations, feel that somehow, their denomination is just a little bit better. It is easy to be welcoming and friendly, yet it feels good to think that we are just a little bit more in sync.

When I was fifteen we moved from England to Quebec City for one year. We were told by an acquaintance than we must go to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to hear Dr, Bragg preach. And so, soon after we moved, we drove to this historic church in the Old City and found a small congregation with a very welcoming manner. Everyone was friendly and we just kept on going back, even though we were Anglicans. My family became five ninths of the tiny choir.

I remember Dr. Bragg describing the difference between Anglicans and Presbyterians. Their words to the Lord’s prayer are slightly different: they say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Dr. Bragg says that when Anglicans visit the Presbyterian Church, the Anglicans are considered in their debt: they must return the welcome. But when Presbyterians visit the Anglicans, they are considered trespassers!

I have found Christians of other denominations to be different but faithful. They might stress different things than we stress, but they are trying to follow Jesus’ way, just as we try to do. I might prefer our worship, but theirs is just as rich in other ways. Although we define ourselves into groups and seem to know who’s in and who’s out, Jesus doesn’t seem to. In today’s Gospel story Jesus teaches his disciples to look outside of their group to see God working.

This story means that we too can do Christ’s work in the world. We don’t have to be part of the “in” group. We don’t have to be just a certain denomination. We don’t have to be ordained. We simply need to do God’s will in the name of Jesus. And in doing it, we will draw ever more closely to him.

Jesus warns against putting a stumbling block in the way of those whose faith is young. And here, despite the efforts of the disciples, this man comes stumbling into Jesus’ circle.

The disciples want to limit God’s grace. Sometimes we can try to do the same. But our God is a God who is free, and who will not be contained in the concepts which we create.

Sometimes I remember that God’s grace is surprising and fresh and new and can be found in the unexpected. And I realize that God works not only in ways which are comfortable to me and through people who are known to me, but God works out there too. And, incredibly enough, God can even work through me! And just in the same way, God works through you. Amen.

Proper 23 B - Communication and Compassion

Sermon for 6 September 2009

Mark 7:24-37

By Sharyn Hall

This past weekend I was visiting our son and daughter-in-law and baby granddaughter in New York City. Our granddaughter, Stella, is fourteen months old. She chatters a great deal but rarely forms words. Her parents are teaching her sign language, not because she has a hearing problem, but to help her communicate. This has become popular among parents in recent years. I am amazed at how well Stella is able to communicate using a few signs, and she is adding signs to her vocabulary everyday. She is able to ask for more food, to ask for a book or her ball, to identify a dog, a monkey, a hat and many more things using only signs with her hands. It is remarkable how much she can convey without saying the words.

The sign language she is learning was developed originally for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. Being unable to hear can shut off communication with others and with the world in general. If a child is born deaf, a child can have difficulty forming words in speech because the child cannot hear the sounds. Stella is able to hear, so when we make the signs with Stella, we always say the word so that she can hear the word as well. Medical science has developed many ways to help people with hearing difficulties, and sign language continues to be an important means of communication for them.

In our gospel story today, we see a man who had none of those advantages, and his deafness prevented him from learning to speak. He is trapped in a world of silence, but he has good friends who take him to Jesus with hope that Jesus can heal him. In that society, a person with physical difficulties could be shunned and become a beggar in the street. A deaf and mute man could be vulnerable to ridicule and abuse and have little hope for the future. It is significant that the man in our story had friends who brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to heal him. It was the kindness of his friends that opened a way to his healing. Jesus who always had compassion for the blind, the deaf, the leper and those whom society rejected, healed the man’s physical disabilities and gave him hope for a future life within a community of family and friends.

Jesus made compassion a cornerstone of his mission from God. He demonstrated that all people, regardless of their place in society, are worthy of God’s love and mercy. He emphasized the Hebrew commandment to love your neighbour as second only to love for God. Thus it is surprising to read of an incident in today’s gospel when Jesus harshly rejects someone who comes to him for help. The story of the Syrophoenician woman has been a subject of various interpretations by many Biblical scholars. Why was Jesus so rude to her? He compared her to the dogs who eat scraps from the table, which was an insult in that culture.

Some scholars have noted that Jesus was seeking peace and rest, so when the woman interrupted him, he reacted with irritation. Other scholars have suggested that Jesus was trying to focus his mission on the Hebrew people to renew their covenant with God. This woman before him was a Gentile who did not believe in God, so why should he pay attention to her pleas for healing for her daughter? Was Jesus being prejudiced? Did he reject the woman because she was not of his faith? These would be disturbing interpretations of his behaviour, but the lesson in the story may be more positive. Whatever the reason for his initial reaction, Jesus changed his mind because of the response of the woman. The woman did not react angrily to his reference to dogs, but with humility responded that even the dogs are given the crumbs. Jesus was impressed by her humility, and by her faith in his power to heal her daughter.

In this incident, we see the human Jesus tired, perhaps irritable, and perhaps capable of making a mistake. Some people would never accept that Jesus was capable of making a mistake in dealing with people, or that he would be persuaded by someone to change his mind, but in this encounter between Jesus and this Gentile woman, we see the power of the spoken word to be hurtful or healing. Words and gestures can be wounding, and the possibility for misunderstanding can be great. On the other hand, words and gestures can bring healing and reconciliation between people.

At first it may seem strange that the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman should be paired with the story of Jesus healing the deaf and mute man, but there is a connection if we consider how we hear one another and how we speak to one another. Many of the problems in families are rooted in miscommunication, misunderstanding, not enough listening and too many words spoken in judgment.

Many of the problems in our world stem from words of prejudice, hatred or ignorance and far too few times of listening for opportunities of reconciliation. If Jesus could be persuaded to change his mind by the sincere words of a woman of different race and religion, why cannot Christians be persuaded to set aside barriers of race, religion and social status?

Jesus as a human being encountered humanity. He was divine and he showed us how we should strive to follow God’s will, but he also taught us how to be human, how to be God’s children despite our human frailties. Many people have called Jesus the Word of God incarnate. He embodied God’s message to the world. Jesus brought words of mercy, compassion and love to all people. As Christians we are called to echo those words of Jesus in this time and in this place and in a world, which often does not want to listen. May God give us the courage to speak with love. Amen.

17 September 2009

Proper 24 B - Festival of Flowers

Mark 8: 27-38

St. Luke’s, Burlington

13 September 2009

By Stuart Pike

It is always a problem when the lectionary gives what might be considered negatively-toned readings, particularly when, in the life of the parish, it is an exceedingly positive time. Such as now – when we are celebrating this beautiful Festival of Flowers for our 175th anniversary – and the Gospel reading gives us Jesus telling his disciples that he must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and be killed. It’s a little bit of a downer in such a beautiful setting as this.

I imagine that must have been how Peter felt on that day. Jesus has just asked his disciples what people are saying about him. Some say that he is the spirit of Elijah who has returned, and some say the spirit of John the Baptist or one of the prophets. And Jesus asks – But who do you say that I am?

Of course it is Peter who immediately answers. Peter is the brash and impetuous one. He is the enthusiastic bull in the china shop who exuberantly charges through while the rest stand back nervously to survey the damage and learn from his mistakes.

But in this case, Peter gets it right. How was it that he was able to understand this truth about Jesus: “You are the Messiah.” Imagine how puffed up and proud Peter would be. The Messiah, in Jewish prophecy, would be the one sent by God to save Israel. In their immediate political situation, the people would understand this to mean being freed from the oppressive rule of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus would be the victor, the powerful one. Imagine what it would be like to be one of his disciples.

But then Jesus, as usual, turns things upside down and tells them what the title, Messiah, really means. It will mean suffering and rejection and death – before rising again.

Peter, still floating on his high, has his hopes and expectations dashed by Jesus’ words and Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus, of course, rebukes Peter in turn, saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

How could Peter, who got it all so right just moments ago, now be so wrong? Peter aced the quiz, but he really flunked the exam!

Peter, like most of us, just wanted to know about the glory, without understanding the cost. Peter dreamed about the beautiful life, but Jesus was telling them about the ugly road to get there.

The beauty that Peter was thinking about, reminds me of the beauty of this Church today. It looks simply idyllic! It helps that the Church structure in itself is so beautiful – the wonderful old wood – the marvelous stained glass – the perfect shape of each article which comes together in such a lovely overall design. And then added to the structure of the Church are the dozens of floral arrangements, accentuating and adorning the beauty of this place. Each arrangement has been individually designed to fit its situation and yet create an overall wholeness which is just so right.

I overheard some admirers who saw the Church yesterday and said – this is so beautiful; we should have it this way all the time! They were just kidding, because they could understand that it really involved a lot of work to get this place so beautiful.

I can tell you that it has been a beehive of activity for days – even weeks to produce such beauty. Like it does for me, I suspect that seeing this beauty somehow changes you, that is the whole purpose for it. Somehow, seeing it brings me to a place beyond this physical place. Like a sacrament, it gives my spirit a glimpse of what heaven is. I think that this essential truth is why artists, like the members of the Garden club of Burlington, do their work.

Yesterday, when Elizabeth Crozier started her amazing floral artistry before her audience in our Great Hall, she said, “A good floral arranger discovers something in nature and presents it, through the arrangement, in such a way that others see it too.”

I think that what the artist discovers, and must present to others, is a glimpse of heaven.

But it costs. I can’t simply walk into this beautiful Church and have my heavenly moment without others having worked and made a sacrifice to allow me to see it. The sacrifice of our forebears built this beautiful Church. The sacrifice of dozens of volunteers decorated it so beautifully. I know that following Jesus means sacrifice for me too, and for all Christians.

Our sacrifice is needed to bring others to a place which is beyond their ordinary experience, so that what we have discovered in our journey of faith can be presented so that others see it too.

But then the next, even deeper truth about sacrifice is that it will give us amazing joy in our lives: not only in arriving at the heavenly destination, but in living the sacrifice itself. It doesn’t make much sense. It shouldn’t be so according to the logic of the world, but that is the way it is. Peter and the other disciples would learn this later in their lives, and that’s why they gave themselves so totally to their mission.

There is an apocryphal story about Mother Teresa.

A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, "Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!" Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks.

Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. "So you say I have given up everything?" she said quietly.

The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. "Oh, my dear man," she said, "you are so wrong. It isn't I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!"

To the businessman's total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.

Giving yourself, so that others can know the truth that is beyond themselves, so that others’ spirits can have a glimpse of heaven too, is a sacrificial, journey of faith that will bring you joy. Amen.

Proper 16 B - Come Rest Awhile

Sermon for July 19, 2009

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

“Come Rest Awhile”

By Sheila Plant

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Some time ago, while researching for a project on the Old Testament, I was struck by the story of Namaan, a Syrian commander. I imagined this commander as having great presence, dressed in the finery befitting his status, surrounded by staff and soldiers who responded to his every whim. However, all that finery, all the trappings of his station could not hide one glaring fact. Namaan had leprosy, and his skin was a mess with big, ugly blotches all over him. At some point he received a message from the prophet Elisha. Namaan could be cured of his leprosy by dipping himself seven times in the River Jordan. However, he resisted. His staff tried to persuade him to do it by asking, “If the prophet asked you to do something difficult or dangerous to cure your leprosy, you’d do it wouldn’t you? So, why don’t you try something as simple as dipping yourself in the Jordan?”

Namaan was a proud man, and perhaps the idea of baring himself in front of his soldiers was somewhat embarrassing or below his dignity. But, he was a smart man and conceded their point by going straight to the Jordan and by the time he towelled himself off, his skin had become as fresh and smooth as the skin of a baby.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” In other words, he tells them to take a break to devote some time to “being” rather than “doing.” He often tells us the same thing- “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” He is telling us, too, to take a break and devote some of our time to “being” rather than “doing”.

But, we often ignore that command. We want to follow the path of Jesus and are willing to take whatever action is necessary to keep us on that path. But when it comes time to rest, when it comes time to Jesus telling us to take a break for awhile, we respond as Namaan did at first. We would do something big and brave, but to do something so simple is beyond us and we ignore Jesus.

When was the last time you announced that you were having a ME day-resting, doing nothing, only to find that a few hours into your resting day, you were bored. You felt guilty, fidgety, and all the while you couldn’t turn your mind off from thinking of all things that needed doing. Thinking of “doing” instead of “being” as Jesus had asked of his disciples.

Jesus had his reasons for asking his disciples to rest. They had just returned from a mission on which he dispatched them. He had sent them out in pairs and in haste. They were not to encumber themselves with gear or supplies, but to simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs.

They were not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before and once they returned they must have been exhausted. How refreshing Jesus’ response must have been to what they did. Notice he didn’t respond to their reports about what they were doing by going over a new strategic plan. Notice he didn’t respond to their reports of what they were teaching by going over a new curriculum. No, he told his weary disciples to rest awhile. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” These words must have felt like cool, refreshing water to people who are slaked with thirst.

Many of us do critically important work and find ourselves exhausted. Yet, we don’t rest. We might even believe that we cannot or should not rest. We push ourselves in a way we would never push others. Our life may be productive, we may check off everything on our “to do” list, but the time comes when deep down we recognize something is wrong, that we lack a sense of deep meaning, so we feel cheated.

The disciples have returned from their travels, but the pace has not slackened. As we read in the gospel, “Many were coming and going and they had no leisure time to eat.” Does that sound familiar? Is your workplace like that? Your home? Do you sometimes eat in the car as you go from meeting to meeting? Rather than an exception, this is a common experience for people today. Many are so busy coming and going they have no leisure time. Don’t we all long to hear these words spoken to us by our Lord? Don’t we all desire to hear the invitation to come to a place all by ourselves and simply rest a while in the presence of God?

Jesus listened to the disciples as they reported on all they did. He did not, however, tell them to throw themselves back into action again with an even greater abandon.

He didn’t ask them to do something daring and difficult, big and brave. Rather, what he asks for is so disarming in its simplicity. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Jesus wants us to rest.

But, in today’s world of frantic paced busyness and stretching ourselves in all directions, we see rest as a four letter word.
If people are resting, we may be suspicious of them. Why aren’t they working? If we are resting, we are suspicious of ourselves and we can even make ourselves feel guilty for not doing anything. There is always more to do, and further ways to justify our existence by what we produce. In the face of all that we should be doing, Jesus smiles and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

If asked most of us could recite the pattern of our work as we engage in it day by day, week by week. After I retired from a long teaching career, it took a bit of getting used to not doing things according the bells at recess, lunch or home time. But can this be said for our resting patterns? Is there a pattern in place that insures that going off by ourselves to rest for a while is a reality rather than a desire.

Those patterns may not be there but we can take steps to establish them. Gradually we can build into our lives rhythms of rest and solitude to balance out the rhythms that already pulse.

It can be done.

In her book called “Sabbath Keeping”, Donna Schaper helps us to see that the Sabbath is not something to keep but rather a way of living that helps us become people who work when it’s appropriate, who rest when it’s appropriate and who even rest and work at the same time. She sees the Sabbath as a road to living a life of plenty. During one of my pre-ordination retreats, our leader told us over lunch one day that he would see us at dinner. We naturally assumed that someone else was leading us for the afternoon session, but when we asked what we would be doing, he replied, “nothing”. We would be “being” not “doing”. Jesus was telling me, “come away to a deserted place by yourself and rest for awhile.” I saw no one else that afternoon, and once I became accustomed to the silence and the solitude, I realized that I was doing something simple, and I was listening to Jesus and it felt right. How I spent my time “being” may have been completely different than how someone else spent their time “being.” But it didn’t matter because I was beginning to put a pattern of balance in place.

The French theologian and Mathematician, Blaise Pascal, once said that more than half the world’s ills came from the fact that some people cannot sit in a room alone. That would mean they would have trouble “being” instead of “doing”. Being alone in that room can mean we have, for however brief a period, too much time on our hands, too much time to think. When was the last time you heard the phrase, “Can’t you sit still for just five minutes?” Was the question directed at you, or were you doing the asking? Often asked out of frustration for someone who is constantly on the go, we could interpret this question as an invitation not for “doing” but rather for “being.” Our refusal to rest can hurt us, hurt others and hurt the tasks to which we devote ourselves.

A lot of us try to function without the Rest Factor that Jesus wanted us to include in our lives. We’re plenty busy but the results can be disappointing. When we factor in some rest, some Sabbath time, we are certainly not working as much, but what we are doing is more significant and more meaningful. God does not need to remind us that all that we are and all that we do are gifts from God in the first place.

Like Namaan, we may be willing to do something dangerous and daring, big and brave when what we’re really being asked to do is something quite simple. Namaan needed to slip into the healing waters of the River Jordan. What we are asked to do is equally simple: slip into the healing waters of a life that makes room for regular rest, a life marked by Sabbath time. Today God looks into our hearts and sees what we truly desire, what we truly need. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters and restores our soul, and we learn to listen and to heed his words to us: “Come away to a place all by yourselves and rest a little while with me.”

And so as we go forward into a new week, let us remember to take a rest without feeling pressure or guilt and begin to establish patterns of a balance between being and doing. May we all find healing in our lives marked with Sabbath time.

Thanks be to God.

16 September 2009

Proper 22 a - Chocolat

Proper 22 B - Chocolat

Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

Mark 7: 1-8,14-15,21-23

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

30 August, 2009

By Stuart Pike

There is a wonderful movie which came out in 2000 which is set in a small French town in1959 during the season of Lent. The movie is called Chocolat and perhaps the best time of the year to see it is during lent, though I also think it speaks volumes to today’s lessons. The movie is chock full of Christian themes. One of those themes is about the struggle which we see in today’s Gospel lesson between Christ and the Pharisees about their rules of inclusion and exclusion, cleanliness and uncleanliness.

The small village in the movie is run by the Comte de Renaud who sees his job as primarily one of keeping the town clean and pure ever since the first Comte ran out the Protestant Huguenots. This man is obviously a control freak and all the townsfolk have lived within his strict guidelines. The Comte even writes the Sunday sermons which the young priest must deliver. Of course, the austerity of the town is even greater during Lent, and it is into this solemnity that we are introduced to Vianne and her young daughter who are literally blown into town by the wind.

Of course, the wind is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is baptized he is driven by the Holy Spirit firstly out into the wilderness, and then he was blown back into a society which was just as austere as this little French town; a society in which the rules, which were made to help guide the people into a relationship with God, became the whole point in themselves. I can just see the set of those Pharisees shoulders and their clucking to each other about Jesus and his followers who were breaking all the rules, and must, therefore, be stopped. Jesus says to Nicodemus when he is speaking about the Spirit: the wind blows where it will and you don’t know from where it is coming and where it will go. This is true about the Holy Spirit: we don’t know where the Spirit will take us, but we can choose to follow.

Imagine the scandal of the town and the Comte De Renaud when this mysterious young woman opens up a chocolate shop right downtown in the middle of Lent! And this is a woman with a young daughter and no sign of a husband anywhere!

In the story, one by one, members of the town undergo an interior struggle between traditions and expectations and their own sense of need. They are drawn to Vianne and her shop and she welcomes them in. She is able to hear their stories and understand the wound which each one carries. And she knows how to heal them. A group of travellers arrive who the townsfolk call River Rats and who are obviously perceived to be unclean by the townsfolk. They follow their passions and not the rules, living full and sensuous lives. Person by person the town is transformed as people let go of their fears and are able to heal relationships. Vianne knows just which type of chocolate will heal each one.

I’m just so impressed with a movie in which Chocolate is the symbol which represents healing! And perhaps this is one of the reasons why I like this movie so much as do so many others. It is just so right!

The struggle in the movie, and Jesus’ struggle with the Pharisees, seems to be one where all sorts of mis-association happen: Good and evil, righteousness and pleasure, austerity and sensuality, spirit and body, solemnity and laughter. Many such mis-associations still happen in religions today. It wasn’t that long ago when most Anglicans would have thought it somewhat sacrilegious to laugh out loud in Church. Certainly, we are still haunted by the Victorian mores which have deeply wounded the collective psyche of the religious in its denial of sexuality and sensuality and anything of the flesh in general. This is what I call St. Paul on steroids!

It was within a similar repressed and unbalanced society that Jesus lived his passionate life. He taught and loved and feasted with those of dubious social station and, despite what St. Paul would later write, he taught us that we are loved, as we are, within our bodies with all of their appetites and ungovernable ways.

It is to the sensual body that our Old Testament lesson speaks in which God is described in the passionate words of a lover: “Look, here he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag ... my beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Do you remember when your heart skipped and your breath was caught up in joy because of your love for God and God’s love for you? I’m sure the memory is there: perhaps there before language. Perhaps it has been buried under years or decades of religious rules and orders. Perhaps it is still that fresh and joyful today. Whatever the case, this is the God which Jesus shows us.

This same love of Christ is the love which reaches out to the poor and the wounded, and to those who are outcast from society. He shows us that God’s love is one which heals people and relationships.

All too often the Church has stood beside the pharisees and made the rules the object of worship, rather than God. Jesus shows the Pharisees that our purpose is to love one another. He quotes Isaiah in which God says, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

God wants our hearts, our lives and our passion for the service of the kingdom. God would have us both worship with our lips, as in our liturgy, and with our hearts. God would have us reach out to include all who would come to us.

In the movie even the old Comte is changed at the end. He goes to the chocolate shop on Holy Saturday to destroy it before Easter. But, he accidentally tastes some of the chocolate and completely gives in to it and starts eating it until he passes out to be found by the parish priest on his way to the Easter Mass. It says that the Comte was “strangely released” from his fixation with control and judgement.

In his Easter Sermon the young priest says: “I want to talk about Christ’s humanity, I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." Amen.

Proper 21 B - Mystery

Sermon for 23 August 2009

John 6: 56-69

By Sharyn Hall

I am a fan of mystery stories, particularly what you might call the classic British mystery stories of the great detective Sherlock Homes, and the detective characters of author Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Over the years, several actors have portrayed these famous and unusual characters on stage, in movies and in television series. In all cases, these mystery stories involve the terrible crime of murder. When my sons were growing up, they often reminded me that my criticism of the violent killing in some of their computer games was at odds with my fondness for murder mysteries.

I would try to explain that the attraction is the mystery, not the murder. I like the puzzle of the clues, also the setting, the characters and often the psychological insight needed to unravel the mystery. A good mystery writer will be fair to the reader and give sufficient clues, so that when the mystery is solved, the reader exclaims, “Of course, that makes sense.”

As human beings, we generally like things to make sense. We like to unravel mysteries and understand their meaning. When things do not make sense, we are puzzled and sometimes annoyed. We see this happening in today’s gospel story when the disciples say, ”This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” What Jesus was saying to them did not make sense. He said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We believe that Jesus was referring to the mystery of what we call the sacrament of communion.

We associate his words with the consecration of bread and wine. In the prayer of consecration, the celebrating priest repeats the words of Jesus – “This is my body given for you. – This is my blood shed for you.” We do not hear those words as strange, but can we imagine how strange those words sounded to the disciples? The words of Jesus sounded bizarre and a little frightening. When Jesus offered his followers to eat his flesh, not surprisingly, some turned away, perhaps with bewilderment or even alarm.

This kind of language sounded too much like human sacrifice. One of the most disturbing criticisms of Christian communities in the first century was that their worship practices included human sacrifice. The ritual meal of bread and wine was not understood as a symbolic mystery; however, clues to the mystery were given by Jesus in several ways. Over the past three weeks, we have read some of these clues in the gospel of John. Jesus said, ”Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life.” “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life…The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The clue which gives us insight into the mystery of the sacrament of bread and wine is the Spirit. Somehow and in some way, the Spirit of God enables each one of us to live in Jesus and in God by accepting a piece of bread and a sip of wine that has been dedicated to represent the presence of God in Jesus. This is a mystery which scholars, mystics and branches of the Christian faith have attempted to describe and unravel over many centuries. It is an unsolved mystery, which can be welcomed only by faith. If it is accepted by faith, if we welcome the work of God’s Spirit, then consuming the sacrament of bread and wine can strengthen our belief that Jesus brings us closer to God.

Unlike the popular mystery stories, there is no exclamation of understanding that the mystery of the sacrament makes sense. We do not come to an understanding by solving a puzzle, and that is what makes a sacrament a sacrament. The definition of a sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward and visible sign of receiving bread and wine is the inward and spiritual acceptance of the grace of Jesus to bring God into our lives. Our acceptance of Jesus as the one sent by God to abide in us is also our acceptance of the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are baptized into the Christian faith with water as a symbol of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan, but it was the presence of the Holy Spirit which confirmed the presence of God in the baptism of Jesus. In the sacrament of baptism that we celebrate, we use the symbol of water to remember God’s blessings of creation, salvation and redemption, but it is the Spirit, which conveys God’s blessing of welcome into the community of Christ, a community which often is called the body of Christ. As priests, we enact the ritual, but the mystery and significance of baptism is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

Baptism is the beginning of a life in Christ. What does that mean? It means that Jesus abides in us as God abides in Jesus. It means that the Way of Jesus is open for the one who chooses to follow. Our guide for the Way of Jesus is the Spirit. How the Spirit works in the sacrament of baptism, in the sacrament of communion and in the moments of our daily lives will always be a mystery, but the mysterious work of the Spirit is a gift from God to be gratefully accepted and joyfully celebrated.

Thanks be to God. Amen.